I’m grateful ministry has regularly involved me in accompanying those who are dying and bereaved. This has confronted me with my own mortality. This began in my early twenties when – as part of my training – I attended a course at St Christopher’s hospice in South London where the pioneering work for the terminally ill was being undertaken by Cicely Saunders and Michael Twycross. I remember well the feelings as I looked out from the window over the London Waterloo line. I thought of the irony of thousands hurtling past this point twice a day oblivious of the life and death dramas played out on the wards where I walked. For me it symbolised the way death has been increasingly removed from our daily lives, in a way the average Victorian family would not have believed. Just take a walk round any Victorian graveyard and you’ll see what I mean as you look at grave stones commemorating children, young people and young adults who died on a regular basis removed. Death was frequent visitor within family life. This has led to the formation of a death denying culture, not by any strategy, but because death visits the family so little and so late in life today. You just get on with getting the most out of life and so you can ignore your own mortality until the loss of a parent well into mid-life.  It may lurk at the back of your mind but it’s not at the forefront of your consciousness, even if studies tell us the average person fleetingly thinks about their own mortality a number of times daily. When I started in ministry, a minister – within a few months of retirement – told me that when he started in ministry he prepared people to die. But when he talked to me he said those days had passed. So what should be the Christian disciple’s approach to his own mortality? Henri Nouwen – the Christian spirituality writer of the late 20th century – talked about the movement we are called to make from denying death to befriending it. These questions might provoke us to get started.

Where’s our home?  2 Corinthians 5:1-10                                                                          

Paul uses a striking image. He described what we now experience as ‘tent living’, while the future is like moving from this temporary accommodation into a house. We must cultivate within ourselves the outlook that everything we experience currently is temporary and fleeting. There’s something better on the way! So he develops the image and says he wants to be ‘at home with the Lord’ (v.8).  But this isn’t an attitude of escapism: ‘This life is so bad I want the get the hell out of here!’ It’s what I call an insurance policy Christianity or departure lounge Christianity. Notice how Paul switches imagery: he doesn’t want to be unclothed but to be further clothed (v.4) He’s not talking about stripping off the poor, old physical body, but that he wants to see this mortal body to be ‘swallowed up by life.’ So if I ask, ‘Where should we focus and out our energy? Into this life or the next?’ That would be a trick question. Because it’s both! You put energy into this life because what we do or contribute now – weak, frail and limited as it is – will one day be swallowed up by a fuller expression of life! My Dad modelled this sense of moving toward death as a calling home. He was ready to make that journey in the last years of his life. It has helped me prepare for my own destiny to be ‘at home with the Lord.’

Does death separate us?  Romans 8:37-39 &  Romans 14:7-9
Much of the fear of death is about separation – from the familiar, from loved ones, from our own consciousness. Paul in this wonderful lyrical passage builds to a crescendo, celebrating the all-embracing, overcoming love of God in Christ Jesus. He says that nothing separates us from this love – not even death itself. We are made for the presence of God. We’re told in Psalm 139 that we cannot escape from God’s presence, even if we make our bed in Sheol – the place of the departed! We perhaps should imagine, as those made in the image of God, we are born with a sense of the divine, of God. And this gradually fades. Augustine in his beautiful spiritual autobiography breaks into prayer: ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I without and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you.’ The way of Christ is to restore us to a consciousness of God’s presence within us. Augustine realised that he was not at home when God called! ‘You were within me, while I was totally absorbed in the world around me.’ What an amazing image. And it means that relationship is held in the love of God.

And Paul develops this later in his letter in a suggestive way. He says that Jesus is the ‘Lord of the living and the dead.’ So whether we alive or dead we belong to the Lord. This means that those who have died ahead of us are the Lord’s just as we are. That means our loved ones who have died, are as close to us as the Lord is. And just as we talk with the Lord, so we should understand our continuing relationship with those who have died before us. We don’t talk much about the ‘communion of saints’ in our tradition today despite it being in the ancient creeds of the Church. It’s our loss! My mother modelled this for me in her dying days. As she lay in the hospice in her final days she talked about how the veil was thinning between her and those who had gone on before her. She could see the saints who had gone on ahead – friends she loved. So in after the death of a loved one, treasure your faith in the risen Christ and draw them into your fellowship – don’t feel bad about talking with them, for this is the practical outcome of the communion of saints grounded in the love of Christ that overcomes all separation.

Will death win?  1 Corinthians 15:53-57
Mrs Kinch had been a senior nurse in her working career. I met her in the last weeks of her life when at St Christopher’s.  She had had a kidney cancer which – she thought – had been successfully treated. After the operation and treatment she went to the Dordogne where she had a holiday property. In the elation of what she thought was a reprieve, beauty became luminous, her surroundings vivid with every sense heightened. But secondary cancers were discovered some months later. She shared her devastation as elation gave way to despair in the light of death’s victory. And death bears us all away eventually. So is it always victorious? The Good News declares there is a power greater than death. The resurrection of Jesus is a shift of in the power structures of our universe. At the end of this amazing passage about resurrection in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, a shaft of hope pierces the darkness.  The perishable puts on imperishability, and the mortal body becomes immortal. ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ It shows God is committed to transforming our physical existence into life in all its fullness. In another image earlier in the chapter he talks about the resurrection of Jesus as the first sign of harvest – the firstfruits of the full harvest to come. What happened to Jesus then, will happen to us in Christ. And this leads us to our final question.

Should we grieve? 1 Thessalonians 4:13
Over my years in ministry I’ve noticed a trend away from calling the service at the end of life a ‘funeral’, and towards a ‘celebration of the life of…’ I understand this. We can and should – in most cases! – celebrate someone’s life, where we treasure their memory. But this is not our way of joining a culture that denies death, albeit dressing it up in fine spiritual language. Paul, responding the news of the loss of loved ones amongst the Thessalonians writes that he wants them to understand their situation aright, ‘so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’ Notice what he does not say. He does not say they were not to grieve. But that their grieving shouldn’t be the same as those around – without any hope. We feel our losses like anyone else. And in fact the more we love, the greater the loss. Pain is necessarily a part of love. As C S Lewis said, the only way not to experience the pain of loss is to keep your heart closed and locked into itself. But then, gradually, without noticing it, that heart shrivels up and dies. Loss, pain and love are the flip-side of one another. But because of resurrection, we can grieve in hope that one day God’s wipes every tear from our eyes.

For reflection
1.    In what ways are we able to ignore death today?
2.    How does Paul’s comparison of living in a tent or permanent home help us to understand this life and the next? See 2 Corinthians 5
3.    Share your feelings about your own mortality – how much do you think about it?
4.    Death separates loved ones. How may Paul’s confidence in the love and Lordship of Christ help us with such experiences of separation? See Romans 8 & 14
5.    How does Christians belief in the resurrection of the body differ from belief in the immortality of the soul?
6.    Cremation and burial – share your feelings about both? How might each affect someone who is grieving?
7.    What does it mean for a Christian to grieve in hope? What about grieving for those who didn’t know God?

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